Last night I couldn’t help but notice how the evening commentaries were ripping up Sarah Palin for misunderstanding the job description of the vice presidential office. In answer to a question by a nine year old boy, Sarah Palin said… “They’re in charge of the U.S. Senate so if they want to they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes…”
Well, before writing her off as an idiot, let’s at least pay attention to Article 1, Section 3 of the U.S.Constitution, which states…
“Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.”
According to the Senate Rules, presiding over the Senate means keeping order, so in one sense, you could say Palin was correct, that the Vice President is “in charge” of the Senate, at least while presiding, but that doesn’t suggest the kind of influence over actual legislation that Palin seemed to be implying. In fact, most Vice Presidents in the past have spent very little time presiding over the Senate, leaving that role to the President pro tempore, who presides over the Senate in absence of the Vice President, or if the Vice President assumes the office of President of the United States. In practice, freshman senators are traditionally assigned to this role in order to learn Senate procedure, which suggests a somewhat inert position. There is only one other constitutionally mandated duty of the Vice President and that is to receive from the states the tally of electoral ballots cast for president and vice president and to open the certificates “in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives,” so that the total votes could be counted (Article II, section 1). Once again, there is no actual vote or decision making in this role either, just procedure.
So while it’s safe to say that our standing laws don’t really give as much power to the Vice President over the senate as Palin may have been suggesting, that doesn’t mean the office won’t develop significant power under direction from the President of the United States, which is another point that Palin brings up constantly. Historically, the role played by the Vice President varies dramatically from one administration to the next and if we look at the current administration we will notice a Vice President that many feel has more influence over the direction of the country than the President himself.
Vice President Dick Cheney hasn’t exactly been a passive standby and much of his role as Vice President has been developed as a product of his own character. In fact he has used his constitutional link to the Senate as an effective political weapon…
According to documents released in June of 2007 by a House committee, Cheney made the claim that because he is the president of the Senate, his office is not fully part of the Bush administration, but is also part of the legislative branch, therefore exempting his office from a presidential order regulating federal agencies’ handling of classified national security information. This move effectively blocked the on-site inspection of his office by National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office, who in response said that the Vice President’s failure to demonstrate that his office has proper security safeguards in place could jeopardize the government’s top secrets. At least one of those inspections would have come at a particularly delicate time – when Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and other aides were under criminal investigation for their suspected roles in leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Cheney’s executive decision
So standing rules aside, we need to realize that the “flexibility” that Palin keeps talking about in reference to the office of the Vice President could be a significant political factor and as Cheney has already proven, an effective route for diabolical agendas.